King Crimson at the Chicago Theatre, June 28, 2017.
This was the eighth time I’ve heard King Crimson in concert — and, for me, the best. Pretty much the entire night was a peak experience, miles ahead of any previous rock show I’ve seen in my forty years of concert-going.
Why? Because this incarnation of Crimson can play it all, from the muted to the majestic to the metallic. And because they did play it all — fluent, ferocious, daring and delicate by turns (and sometimes all at once). Nearly three hours of an utterly unique band hitting one high point after the other, in thoroughly unpredictable fashion.
[Note that setlist spoilers follow the jump.]
The opening “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Part One” was a microcosm of the whole show. At once looser and more pointed than the version I heard in 2014, the inviting gamelans & bells of the opening blossomed through Robert Fripp’s encroaching power chords into crunchy full band riffs, as the tempo and energy ratcheted up mercilessly. Then — at just the right point! — it all gave way to a whimsical Mel Collins flute solo (complete with puckish quote of “Chicago, That Toddlin’ Town”) and a last, shuddering crescendo. It felt inevitable, but it couldn’t have been foreseen — which is why it was so satisfying.
The rest of the first half showcased Crimson as a tight, high-powered chamber ensemble — a loud one, with three drummers up front! Gavin Harrison laid down the rhythmic foundations with style, precision and technique to spare; Pat Mastoletto delved deep into sonic anarchy, tossing in electronica beats and whacking hand-held percussion at every opportunity. Maybe it’s just the John Bonham-style bowler hat, but newcomer Jeremy Stacey seemed to serve up a meatier backbeat than Bill Rieflin, along with hard driving cymbal time for jazzier pieces. When the front line combined for big unison moments or tossed the beat across the stage to each other, it was exhilarating to hear and to watch.
The exploration continued with Jakko Jakszyk essaying his first Adrian Belew-era vocal on “Neurotica,” then introducing the seductively contrapuntal, brand-new “Radical Action III.” Digging into the era of Lizard, “Cirkus” and the extended “Battle of Glass Tears” featured Rieflin in his new role of keyboard player, joined by Stacey and Fripp on atmospheric Mellotron and electric piano, with Collins soaring and searing over the top and Tony Levin laying down rich, impeccable bass work. Another helping of heavy (“Fallen Angel,” marked by another great vocal, and an unstoppable “Larks’ Tongues Part 2”) brought the audience to their feet — only to be collectively gobsmacked by an utterly serene “Islands.” Jakko provided the night’s most lyrical singing, Stacey held the crowd spellbound with gorgeous solo piano, and a marvelous time was had by all.
How to top that? Well, after intermission and a viciously rhythmic “Pictures of A City,” a different Crimson showed up, pivoting from precision-tooled ensemble to free jazz collective. After the drum line played hot potato with the opening solo section, “Indiscipline” grooved like mad, with Jakko scat-singing Belew’s lyrics and Collins swinging the riffs. “Easy Money” surged forward, nearly collapsed in a clatter of percussion, reformed around a cuttingly melodic Fripp solo and Jakszyk’s wordless howl, and sprinted over the finish line. A pensive backline interlude (Collins and Jakszyk on flutes, with Fripp, Rieflin and Levin skittering around them) became “The Letters;” Collins shone again on multiple saxes, with Levin playing off him to stunning effect.
Gathering themselves for the final push, Crimson locked together again for the intricacies of “Meltdown/Radical Action II.” A remorseless “Level Five” featured everybody: guitars and drums (plus Rieflin on white noise keyboard) tossing rhythmic licks back and forth; Fripp and Levin shredding in unison; Collins tossing off still more compelling improv. Like the opening “Larks’ Tongues,” the closing “Starless” encapsulated Crimson’s approach in 15 unforgettable minutes, the melancholy song evolving through that tense, yearning unison riff to the ecstatic release of Collins’ and Fripp’s committed, intense solos.
A straight-forward “Heroes” and a dazzling workout on “21st Century Schizoid Man” (with final solos by Fripp and Collins, Levin making the bass line completely his own and Harrison providing a drum solo you actually wanted to go longer), and the show was done. As the band took bows and pictures (and the audience reciprocated), the night felt complete. King Crimson had brought more than 3,000 people from quiet to loud, from low to high, through angst to ecstasy again and again. Seriously, there is no better band on the planet right now; if you have any interest in their music, I’d argue that you need to hear them live — if not now, when they return to the States in the fall.
P.S. Tony Levin agrees with me: “Tonight’s show at the Chicago Theater was one of our best.” Check out his pre-show and post-show photos (I’m in the back row of the main floor, five seats to the left of the center aisle — yeah, that indistinct blob in the KC polo shirt and hat): http://tonylevin.com/road-diaries/king-crimson-2017-tour-pt1/chicago-show